At first glance, there was nothing particularly special about Harvard’s 77-59 win over Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team on Feb. 10.

A good crowd had shown up to Lavietes Pavilion for the Crimson’s home game. And to be sure, Ivy League games always have some storied history behind them. But what was most remarkable is that the lead-up to this game had taken place in boardrooms rather than locker rooms.

Just a few days earlier, the Boston office of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency, had determined that the work Dartmouth players undertook for their team amounted to employment — and that as such, the players had a right to unionize. Within weeks, the team became the first to vote to do just that.

That historic decision is just one notch in the long list of changes that Charlie Baker, as president of the NCAA, must now manage.

After just over a year under Baker’s leadership, the NCAA is wading through a sea of challenges. Lawsuits undoing generations of NCAA precedent. Some players making millions of dollars in sponsorship deals with no real national oversight. And lawmakers reluctant to bail out the organization when it needs help the most.

And with the NCAA’s biggest event, March Madness, coming to his home state’s capital for the first time during Baker’s tenure, there is a lot more than just brackets at stake as the NCAA grapples to hold on to the very model it created.

Speaking to the press before the men’s Sweet Sixteen games at TD Garden last Thursday, Baker put it succinctly.

“It’s been an interesting year, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

An iconic association in changing times

Mary-Beth Cooper, the president of Springfield College, remembers being a little surprised to learn Baker was a candidate for the soon-to-be vacant NCAA president position back in 2022 given all the challenges the organization is facing. Cooper, who is now a vice chair of the NCAA’s Board of Governors, was part of the seven-person committee tasked with finding the organization’s next president.

Cooper told GBH News Baker’s track record of bipartisanship and interactions with Congress helped convince her Baker was the ideal leader.

“And that’s what I believe the board is doing, and he’s trying to do, is [ask], ‘How can we protect the collegiate, student-athlete experience to ensure that students are having the chance to play sport at the collegiate level?’” she said. “It sounds simple, but I know ... it’s not.”

For the last few years, the NCAA has been dealing with a series of issues that indicate a seismic shift for college sports.

In the summer of 2021, all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA, finding that the organization violated antitrust laws in how it restricted some compensation for athletes.

Before that ruling, the NCAA had been fierce to shut down the very idea that student athletes could get paid, either by their university or outside sponsors. But that decision triggered a new association-wide policy that let athletes make money off of sponsorships that use their name, image and likeness, or NIL.

And just like that, an organization that for decades has valued amateurism as a core tenet suddenly had college players openly cutting checks with outside sponsors. It’s a change that could aggravate a longstanding trend by helping the highest-profile schools attracted talented players when they’re able to, even indirectly, offer money.

“This is essentially fully professionalized college athletics at the highest level — it’s just that the players are being paid by these kind of murky pools of NIL money rather than directly by the schools themselves,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at Holy Cross. “But it’s professionalization by another name. And there’s nothing that Charlie Baker can do to hold back that torrent.”

“The players are being paid by these kind of murky pools of NIL money rather than directly by the schools themselves ... and there’s nothing that Charlie Baker can do to hold back that torrent.”
Victor Matheson, sports economist at Holy Cross

John DeWispelaere, an attorney with the law firm McLane Middleton, works with both schools and athletes on NIL deals.

He said that the new sponsorships landscape has brought a substantial change to the status quo of amateurism. And he sees how, under Baker, the organization has shown at least some willingness to adapt.

For example, the former governor has proposed that Division I schools should be able to enter into sponsorship deals with their athletes. In the past, that sort of idea would have never been considered.

“He’s showing a [willingness] to change and adapt with the times, which is something that we have not really seen from the NCAA in recent times,” he said.

The NCAA's legal team has not wanted for work, either.

In a California lawsuit, the NCAA faces the potential of having to pay what would amount to backpay to athletes who weren’t able to benefit from sponsorships. And earlier this year, a judge pushed back on the NCAA’s ability to regulate recruits’ NIL deals.

Baker is holding out hope for a literal act of Congress, which would give the NCAA a limited antitrust exemption. This would give the organization more legal freedom to set its own rules on college sports. But it’s unclear whether that’s likely to come in the near future, or at all.

Adding to all of this is players at Dartmouth seeking to be recognized as employees. After the game against Harvard, Dartmouth forward Cade Haskins broke down why he believed it was time to seek unionization.

“Athletes, across the country, all levels, have been used — probably because of their youth and ignorance — by these bigger corporations like the NCAA and private schools, like the Ivy League, to take advantage of their ignorance, I guess,” he said. “And now times are changing, people are getting more involved ... and other people have tried this, we’re not the first ones to do this, but we’re just trying to help everyone else out and make this possible.”

In March, Dartmouth announced it will not collectively bargain with the basketball players, stating its belief that Ivy League athletes are not employees. That potentially opens sets the stage for yet another court case with amateurism on trial.

Two players clash on the court in front of a packed arena.
Players from the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Iowa State Cyclones battle for a loose ball in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at TD Garden on March 28, 2024.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images Getty Images North America

An uncertain future for college sports

Through all this, Charlie Baker has a job to do. The NCAA, with over 1,000 member institutions, is mostly comprised of Division II and III schools, although the lion’s share of attention is paid to places with enormous financial buckets, like Ohio State and the University of Alabama.

For Mary-Beth Cooper, Baker’s willingness to pay attention to all members, not just the big schools, is one of his strengths. In December, for example, she said Baker met with Springfield College’s athletic training faculty about issues they were facing.

“He’s got a big job and a lot of people to hear,” she said. “But I think that’s why he was such a great governor. He put himself in front of a lot of people and heard from individuals directly what their issues and concerns were. And so when I think about his success, it will be: He put the time in.”

Personally, Cooper can’t imagine a scenario where a place like Springfield, which is in Division III, would have to pay all of its athletes. She points out doing that would essentially double the employee base of the entire college.

But she also knows that every institution changes. Which is why she’s more confident about the NCAA’s direction now than when Baker started.

“The challenge is to find the right person that doesn’t dig their heels in and say, ‘No, the NCAA of 2015 is the absolute perfect model for the NCAA of 2025.’ It just isn’t the case,” Cooper said. “I just think that he gets it and he appreciates sport for all the things it brings. And he doesn’t want to see it gone, eroded, changed to the point we don’t recognize it.”

More on the horizon

As if all of this wasn't enough, there’s another issue Charlie Baker has on his mind: sports betting.

Baker announced last week that the NCAA is urging states to ban prop bets on collegiate athletes, saying in a statement that they threaten the integrity of competition and lead to athletes getting harassed. Prop bets are wagers made on statistics like individual player scores.

Alongside Massachusetts officials like Attorney General Andrea Campbell, Baker spoke at a press conference Thursday to launch a public-private partnership to combat risk in youth gambling. He expressed confidence in getting states to come around on prop betting.

“There are a lot of players in this space who don’t want to see student-athletes put in a challenging and compromising position and believe the most important thing of all is their safety and security and their well-being and the integrity of the game,” Baker said. “And I think that’s true for pretty much everybody that’s playing in this space. So, I fully expect that we’ll get a fair amount of support and cooperation sort of across the board.”

It’s fair to say there’s a lot on the former governor’s mind. And when asked by GBH News about how the NCAA is equipped to handle issues like sports betting and some of the other changes he’s encountered in his first year on the job, he kept it brief.

“And as far as the first year’s concerned, how much time you got?” he said with a chuckle.